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Wallace, Bruce and Scotland’s Contested Crown


Today we’re pleased to have a guest post by Tristram Clarke, Exhibition Manager for the National Records of Scotland.

You wait ages for the chance to work on a Scottish national hero, and then two come along at once. Two leaders, William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, and two letters connected to them, are the focus of a new exhibition that has been specially created at Stirling Castle. Bringing to life fragile 700 year-old parchment documents is the challenge that our team of archivists and conservators at the National Records of Scotland set ourselves.

Left - Stirling Castle, Right - Wallace Letter © National Records Scotland

The exhibition runs until 1 June 2014. Left: Stirling Castle, Right: Wallace Letter © National Records Scotland

The first item is one of just two surviving documents with a personal link to Wallace, and this little letter offers visitors their own connection to the knight whom many regard as Scotland’s greatest hero. Known to millions worldwide as the fearsome freedom fighter of the film ‘Braveheart’, Wallace appears here also as an international man of mystery on a diplomatic mission to Rome. The European importance of who filled the Scottish throne is a thread running through the exhibition.

Linda Ramsay, Head of Conservation & Donald Campbell, conservator, NRS.  Image © National Records Scotland

Linda Ramsay, Head of Conservation & Donald Campbell, conservator, NRS. Image © National Records Scotland.

By complete contrast, Bruce’s story is much better documented, and we have chosen a key document to illustrate a turning point in his acceptance as King of Scots. His place in history seems so secure that it is easy to forget it was once in doubt. One of several claimants to the Scottish throne, he came to power through a bloody coup and for years struggled to overcome his Scottish and English enemies.

As most people can’t read medieval Latin, we have created interactive touch screens for exploring the important ‘hidden’ words and phrases in the cryptic Wallace letter of just 50 words, and the longer and more involved Bruce letter. The Bruce document has survived in a damaged state and with only three seals attached. For the first time in centuries we have made it complete again with images of the missing seals, either copied from elsewhere or reconstructed.

These two precious survivors from a remote period also need to be treated with respect due to their age. Light can cause fading, an insidious change that continues after exposure, so we aim for low light and also temperate conditions. Meeting these challenges has involved lots of preparation by our own conservation team working with expert colleagues at Historic Scotland, who have worked hard to provide us with a very good display space.

NRS Staff who created the exhibition. Image  © National Records Scotland

Above: Derbhile O’Shea, lighting consultant, testing light levels Below: Tim Ellis, Keeper of the Records, Tristram Clarke & Alan Borthwick, exhibition curators. Image © National Records Scotland.

Stirling Castle could hardly be a more appropriate setting for our exhibition. In 1297 Wallace and Andrew Murray led the Scots to victory at the river crossing that the castle exists to protect. It was this strategic importance that indirectly led to Robert the Bruce’s victory at nearby Bannockburn in 1314.

The Wallace letter is shown as part of a long-term loan to National Records of Scotland from The National Archives, who also assisted with images of other contemporary documents. Creating a stylish but technically appropriate way of presenting ancient documents is challenging. We believe the design, lighting and interactives have all risen to this challenge.

It has been exciting to create the exhibition, and we hope visitors will experience for themselves the thrill of encountering two priceless relics of turbulent times in Scotland 700 years ago.

The exhibition will remain at Stirling Castle until Sunday 1 June.


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From time to time we have guest posts from suppliers, visitors and friends of Historic Scotland.


  1. Tom o'Connor on

    These letters should be on open/free display as the Wallace Safe Conduct Letter was previously in The Scottish Parliament.and not subject to an exorbitant £14.00 entry fee!

    • Lisa Robshaw

      Thanks for your comment Tom. The Scottish Parliament does not have an entry charge. The admission to Stirling Castle includes a visit to the whole castle and the exhibition offers added value to the visitor experience. The charges we apply allow Historic Scotland to undertake our essential conservation work, and contribute to the costs in hosting temporary exhibitions.

  2. Rosina Liddell on

    Had a great day out two weeks ago at Stirling castle. We did pay the £14 but for that we spent over 3 hours at the castle and enjoyed a guided tour which was fab. There was a choir singing and ofcourse we viewed the Wallace & Bruce letters. We also visited the military museum and once finished at the castle used the same entry ticket to visit the Argyll’s Lodging. Great day out and the weather was good.when we were finished there we headed to the Wallace monument which we climbed then a visit to Bannockburn and a wee cuppa in the cafe. Well done Stirling.

    • Ali George

      Glad to hear you enjoyed your visit, Rosina – and thanks for taking the time to comment! I’ll pass your feedback on to the staff at Stirling Castle.

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